Kevin Drum

TPP Looks Set to Pass Congress After All

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 10:53 PM EDT

The LA Times reports the latest on the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty:

President Obama's fast-track trade bill is poised to clear a procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.

Despite deep reservations from many in the president's party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.

How about that? It's apparently not dead after all.

When it failed on its first go-around, it was universally described as a rebuke to President Obama. If it passes this time, it will have to be a rebuke to someone else. But who? Nancy Pelosi? All the anti-TPP Democrats? Big labor? Gotta be someone, right?

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Republicans Oppose Evidence-Based Medical Research Because....Obamacare

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 3:53 PM EDT

Over at the Monkey Cage, Eric Patashnik ponders an oddity: Republicans generally support healthcare research funding, but they've turned against the idea of funding evidence-based research. This is despite the fact that Republicans, who normally support ways to spend tax dollars more efficiently, have been firm supporters for more than two decades? What's going on?

One possible reason is that Republicans oppose taxpayer funding of all scientific research as a matter of principle. Yet the same House Appropriations Committee draft bill that targets health services research also provides a $1.1 billion increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

A second possible reason is that Republicans are uninterested in evidence-based policymaking. But both Democrats and Republicans argue that better information is needed to make government more effective. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (R-Wash.) recently introduced the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015 to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs.

Hah hah. He's just kidding. Patashnik actually knows perfectly well why Republicans have decided they hate evidence-based research. Remember death panels? Remember how the federal government was going to decide which treatments were worth giving to grandma and which ones weren't? Remember how Republicans decided that "comparative effectiveness" research was just a tricky Democratic facade for their effort to take treatment decisions out of the hands of your beloved local doctor and instead put them into the hands of green-eyeshade bureaucrats?

Oh yeah. You remember. Here's Patashnik on what happened to evidence-based research:

Federal investment in this research (although it predated the 2008 election) became closely tied to the Obama administration’s health-care reform agenda....An increased federal role in comparative effectiveness research, together with payments to physicians for voluntary counseling to Medicare patients about end-of-life options and the creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (another agency the GOP wishes to kill) contributed to the “death panels” myth, which Republicans have used to frame health-care reform as “rationing.”

....Although evidence-based medicine might seem likely to have bipartisan support, it has become a partisan issue among voters. In 2010, Alan Gerber, David Doherty, Conor Dowling and I conducted a national survey to gauge public support for government funding of research on the effectiveness of treatments. Among those who reported not voting in 2008, there was not a large difference in support across Democrats and Republicans, but there were significant partisan differences among voters. Republican voters were much less supportive than Democrats. During the debates over the stimulus bill and health-care reform, the two parties took opposing stands on the federal government’s role in this effort, which led to the significant partisan split among politically engaged citizens.

So there you have it. Sarah Palin's revenge. Common sense commitments to promoting evidence-based medicine became tied up in the Republican jihad against anything associated with Obamacare. So now it's on the chopping block too. Welcome to the modern GOP.

Money in Politics Is....Top Concern of Democrats. Republicans Continue Not to Care.

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

I went out for my morning walk today—two-thirds of a mile, woo hoo!—and needed to take a ten-minute break when I got home. So I'm listening to Andrea Mitchell tell me the stunning news that in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, a full 33% of Americans say that money in politics is their top concern about the upcoming presidential election. Specifically, 33% chose as their top concern, "Wealthy individuals and corporations will have too much influence over who wins."

Is that higher than usual? I suppose, though it hardly seems like the makings of a revolution. That's especially true when you see the partisan breakdown:

Democrats were most likely to cite the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals as the top concern, with roughly half of self-described liberals and Democratic primary voters ranking it as their primary anxiety as the 2016 White House race gears up. Only 21% of core Republican voters said it was their top concern.

So....Democrats are upset about money in politics as usual. Republicans don't really care much, as usual. I hope nobody minds too much if I find this a bit of a yawn.

Will Supreme Court Uphold Obamacare Subsidies On Same Grounds It Struck Down Medicaid Expansion?

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

Back when the Supreme Court ruled on NFIB vs. Sebelius—the original Obamacare case—there were two basic parts to the opinion: The individual mandate was upheld and the Medicaid expansion rules were struck down. Most liberals thought the reasoning behind the Medicaid decision was absurd, but I didn't. I found it quite plain and persuasive. Basically, Congress had told the states that if they didn't accept the Medicaid expansion, they'd lose all Medicaid funding. But states are supposed to have a legitimate choice about whether to accept new government programs, and this clearly didn't give them any real choice. No state can afford to lose all its existing Medicaid funding. Congress had set things up so that technically each state had a choice, but it was really no choice at all. In practical terms, every state had to accept the expansion, and this was constitutionally unacceptable.

Two liberal justices agreed with this reasoning, as did the five conservative justices, including Anthony Kennedy. Over at the New Republic, Simon Lazarus notes that during oral arguments in the latest Obamacare case, Kennedy suggested a similar dynamic was at work. The plaintiffs were arguing that the text of the law clearly stated that federal subsidies were available only to states that set up their own insurance exchanges. The problem here is that without subsidies Obamacare is not only useless, but could severely damage the existing insurance market in a state:

Such a threat, he observed, could amount to unconstitutional “coercion” to pressure states to set up exchanges. If this is Justice Kennedy’s take, his most likely outcome would be to adopt an alternative interpretation that avoids having to face the constitutional issue. The Obama administration’s interpretation—that the ACA prescribes credits for customers on all exchanges, whether state-run or federally facilitated—fits that bill.

....Previously, only one case had invalidated a law under a coercion theory like the one Kennedy advanced—NFIB v. Sebelius itself. Then, the Court held unconstitutional the ACA's method to incentivize states to expand Medicaid coverage to all adults up to 138 percent of the Federal poverty level. If they declined, states risked losing federal financial support for their pre-existing Medicaid programs, on average over 10 percent of state budgets. That, seven justices agreed in two separate opinions, was a bridge too far. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by progressive Justices Breyer and Kagan, ruled that this “financial inducement” amounted in effect to “a gun to the head . . . so coercive as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.”

Why were both sides caught off-guard by Kennedy’s attraction to extending the NFIB coercion holding to King, but this time for the benefit of the ACA? The reason, I suggest, is a deep bipartisan cynicism about the Court’s “federalism” jurisprudence....What that cynicism seems to have missed is that, as an ideological matter, Justice Kennedy takes very seriously what he repeatedly lauds as the "federal balance."....In sum, Justice Kennedy might well see King v. Burwell more as an opportunity to advance his federalism ideology, than as a second shot at vindicating the Republican political priority of crippling Obamacare, for which he showed evident sympathy three years ago.

Interesting. Both Kennedy and Roberts could see this case as a way of gaining bipartisan support for a ruling that saves Obamacare but further entrenches the view of federalism stated in NFIB. They might both consider that worth it. While we all twiddle our thumbs waiting for the decision in King v. Burwell to be handed down, it's an interesting possibility to ponder.

Our Grandchildren Will Never Have Heard of a "Preexisting Condition." Thanks, Obamacare.

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 11:26 AM EDT

One of my Twitter followers pointed out something interesting this morning: interest in preexisting conditions has plummeted on Google. Here's the chart:

There are a couple of spikes around 2010, when Obamacare was first passed, but other than that it's been a fairly steady decrease ever since. By 2015, so few people were worried about being denied health insurance because of a preexisting condition that they weren't even bothering to Google it. That's exactly how it should be. Thanks, Obamacare.

The Point of Democracy Is to Keep Powerful Elites From Becoming Complete Jackasses

| Sun Jun. 21, 2015 11:34 AM EDT

Daniel Bell has written a new book making the case that "Chinese-style meritocracy is, in important respects, a better system of governance than western liberal democracy." That's possible, I suppose. Tyler Cowen noodles over the arguments and tosses out a few thoughts. Here's one:

4. Most humans in history seem to have favored meritocratic rule over democracy, and before the 19th century democracy was rare, even in the limited form of male-dominated or property owner-dominated republics. It is possible that the current advantage of democracy is rooted in technology, or some other time-specific factor, which ultimately may prove temporary. That said, I still observe plenty of democracies producing relatively well-run countries, so I don’t see significant evidence that a turning point against democracy has been reached.

I know Cowen is just throwing out some ideas to be provocative, not seriously backing any of them. Still, I think you have to take a pretty blinkered view of "most humans" to throw this one out at all. It's true that humans are hairless primates who naturally gravitate to a hierarchical society, but there's little evidence that "most humans" prefer non-democratic societies. There's loads of evidence that powerful elites prefer elite-driven societies, and have gone to great lengths throughout history to maintain them against the masses. Whether the masses themselves ever thought this was a good arrangement is pretty much impossible to say.

Of course, once the technologies of communication, transportation, and weaponry became cheaper and more democratized, it turned out the masses were surprisingly hostile to elite rule and weren't afraid to show it. So perhaps it's not so impossible to say after all. In fact, most humans throughout history probably haven't favored "meritocratic" rule, but mostly had no practical way to show it except in small, usually failed rebellions. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and suddenly the toiling masses had the technology to make a decent showing against their overlords. Given a real option, it turned out they nearly all preferred some form of democracy after all.

Which brings us to the real purpose of democracy: to rein in the rich and powerful. Without democracy, societies very quickly turn into the Stanford Prison Experiment. With it, that mostly doesn't happen. That's a huge benefit, even without counting free speech, fair trials, and all the other gewgaws of democracy. It is, so far, the only known social construct that reliably keeps powerful elites from becoming complete jackasses. That's pretty handy.

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Resentment and Outrage Are All That Matter in Europe Now

| Sat Jun. 20, 2015 3:12 PM EDT

Larry Summers thinks it will be a catastrophe if Greece repudiates its debt and "financially separates from Europe." Greece will become a failed state; Europe will face a refugee crisis; and both Europe and the IMF will face huge defaults on their loans. Oh, this might not cause financial contagion throughout all of Europe, but then again, that's what everyone said about Long-Term Capital Management, subprime mortgages, and the fall of Lehman Brothers. And look what happened there.

So what does Summers think should happen? Here's his prescription:

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras needs to do what is necessary to make reaching an agreement politically feasible for his fellow Europeans....He needs to be clear that he will accept further value-added tax and pension reforms to achieve primary surplus targets this year and next, but that he expects a clear recognition that if Greece does its part, debt will be written off on a large scale.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European authorities must do what is necessary to make policy adjustments politically tenable in Greece. That means acknowledging that the vast majority of the financial support given to Greece has gone to pay back banks rather than to support the Greek budget. They must agree on debt relief and recognize the degree of adjustment in Greek spending that has taken place: with nearly 30 percent of government workers laid off. It also means announcing their intention to accelerate economic growth throughout Europe.

In case that wasn't clear, here's a translation: the leaders of Europe are idiots. Everyone with a room temperature IQ has known for years that something like this is the deal that needs to be made. It's been discussed endlessly in meeting rooms, op-eds, scholarly papers, and conferences. Not only is it not a secret—or rocket science—it's been the obvious solution forever. But Europe vs. Greece is now like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. Nobody cares anymore how it started, whose fault any of it was, or what the catastrophic results of continued obstinacy will be. They don't even care much about inflicting pain on their own people as long as they also inflict pain on the other side.

They are idiots. Not stupid, mind you, but idiots all the same. They know what needs to be done. They're just too committed to their own resentment and outrage to do it.

It's Long Past Time For South Carolina to Stop Flying the Confederate Flag

| Sat Jun. 20, 2015 1:04 PM EDT

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, flying the the Confederate battle flag on the grounds of the state house is hardly a longtime South Carolina tradition. In fact, it's only been up since 1961. I was googling around on a different but related subject and happened to come across this account of how it happened. It's written by Brett Bursey and based mainly on the recollections of Daniel Hollis. In 1959 President Eisenhower commissioned a national Civil War Centennial, and Hollis was named a member of South Carolina's commission to plan the state's observance of the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States.

Here's his recollection:

Hollis remembers the day the Confederate flag was hoisted over the State House to commemorate the war. The centennial kicked off on April 11, 1961, with a re-creation of the firing on Fort Sumter. The flag went up for the opening celebrations.

"The flag is being flown this week at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May," reported The State on April 12. May didn't introduce his resolution until the next legislative session. By the time the resolution passed on March 16, 1962, the flag had been flying for nearly a year. (This explains why the flag is often erroneously reported to have gone up in 1962).

"May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up," Hollis said, "but I kept quiet and went along. I didn't want to get into it with the UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy] girls." The resolution that passed didn't include a time for the flag to come down and, therefore, "it just stayed up," Hollis said. "Nobody raised a question."

....The day the flag went up, headlines in the local newspapers were full of unrest. Besides the centennial controversy, the news that week included:

  • Sen. Marrion Gressette, the head of the State Segregation Committee, created in 1951 to recommend measures to maintain segregation, was supporting a resolution condemning former North Carolina Gov. Frank Graham, who had spoken at Winthrop College defending the civil rights movement and calling for integration.
  • Thurmond was fighting in Congress to keep federal funding for segregated schools. Political sentiment against school integration was so strong that state politicians vowed to stop all funding to public schools rather than integrate.
  • The Freedom Ride with integrated bus loads of civil rights workers was on the road, and there were reports of violence along the route.
  • The major story of the week was Kennedy's executive order to end segregation in work places that do business with the government. The forced integration of South Carolina's mills outraged politicians and editorial writers.

Hoisting the Confederate flag over the State House didn't generate any controversy at the time. Perhaps those most offended by it were too busy fighting real-life battles to expend any energy on symbolic ones.

So the flag went up partly to commemorate the Civil War and partly as a fairly safe way to protest against the civil rights movement. In either case, it's hardly a legacy issue that strikes at the honor of the Palmetto State. It was originally intended to stay up for only a year, and South Carolinians would do well to remember that. The year is long since up. Take it down.

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 2:55 PM EDT

This is our latest horror story. For reasons unknown (and they're always unknown, aren't they?) Hopper has decided that it's great fun to jump up on the second-story bannister and walk around. We can't think of any way to stop her from doing this, but one of these days she's going to set a paw wrong and go flying off the wrong side. Being a cat, maybe it won't hurt her. But it's a twelve-foot drop, and some of it is onto a hardwood floor. We have visions of splat going through our heads.

What do we do? Put up a net, like those ones they have on the Golden Gate Bridge to catch jumpers? Get rid of the quilts and install razor wire? Put cat-size exercise weights on Hopper's feet so she can't jump so high? There's got to be an answer.

No Matter How You Slice It, Obamacare Reduces the Federal Deficit

| Fri Jun. 19, 2015 2:40 PM EDT

We now live in the blessed era of dynamic scoring, something that Republicans have lusted over for decades. When the Congressional Budget Office makes economic projections, it can no longer just look at spending and taxes and subtract one from the other to get deficits. No siree. First they have to pay homage to the Laffer Curve and acknowledge that lower taxes will supercharge the economy and higher taxes will tank the economy. Then they recompute how much tax revenue they're really going to get.

Anyway, CBO is now required to do this, so here's their projection about how Obamacare will affect the federal deficit. Under the old-fashioned method, it will lower the deficit by $118 billion in 2025. But using the sleek new dynamic scoring system insisted on by Republicans, the truth becomes evident and Democratic evasions are exposed for all the world to see. Obamacare will, um, still reduce the deficit. But only by $98 billion.

In truth, this stuff is so open to interpretation and assumptions (and future congressional action) that neither number means much. Still, if you want to know if Obamacare pays for itself using our best estimates, it does. Even using dynamic scoring, it pays for itself. That's more than Republicans ever do with their programs.